Anatomy of a Gay Icon: Judy Garland

“Is he a friend of Dorothy?

This phrase dates back to at least World War 2 as slang for “what sexual orientation is he?” When acts of homosexuality were still criminalised, slang was needed to discern the gays from the str8’s. But why friend of Dorothy? Who is Dorothy, why does she have so many friends?

We are, of course, talking about Dorothy Gale, lead character of The Wizard of Oz, played to perfection by Judy Garland. Judy Garland and Gay Icon are practically synonymous; she’s the original gay icon, so of course, it makes sense that we start our series with her. Sparkly red heels on everyone, let’s analyse the gay icon, Judy Garland.

To the younger readers who don’t spend their spare time listening to Old Hollywood podcasts and playing Mid Century dress up (clocked), Judy was an old Hollywood icon, known for her roles in The Wizard of Oz, A Star is Born, as well as her vast musical and TV career.

Garland was also known for major personal struggles including substance abuse, multiple failed marriages, suicide attempts and financial ruin. Death and time have been kind to her, as modern audiences are less aware that, at one time, she was a joke within the Hollywood circles, and was often eviscerated by tabloid papers back in the day.

In the 30’s Garland was signed by MGM and started to co-star in a bunch of milquetoast comedies alongside leading man Mickey Rooney. Sadly, Garland was never the lead actress or the vision of desire; she was the girl the next door, the undesirable friend of Mickey Rooney who had a harmless, yet unrequited crush. She was forced to wear a prosthetic nose, frilly, juvenile dresses, and even teeth caps. The studio pumped her with the party mixture of amphetamines and barbiturates (how else are you supposed to stay awake at work then go to sleep? Normal circadian rhythm? Nah m8) and forced her on constant diets. Her teenage / young adult stardom left her with lifelong self-esteem and body issues, as well as a penchant for narcotics washed down in alcohol. There’s definitely some queer relatability to always being seen as undesirable to the object of your affection, feeling uncomfortable and undesirable in your own body, and being forced to wear a costume in which you can’t be yourself.

In 1947, an overworked and addicted Judy suffered a nervous breakdown whilst filming The Pirate, and attempted suicide for the first time by lightly cutting her wrists with broken glass. Salacious Hollywood rumour has it that this was triggered by coming home from set one day and finding her then-husband Vincent Minelli (dad of Liza) in bed with another man.

True or not, Judy was put in a sanatorium by the studio; this started a string of multiple failed recoveries, weight gain, weight loss, more weight loss, pills, rehab, showing up to work late, working too hard, not working hard enough, booze, pills, financial instability and even more pills. She was eventually dropped by MGM in 1950 after 15 years following another suicide attempt; MGM released a public statement playing Judy’s hysteria and manic mood, and she became international tabloid fodder.

She essentially became a Hollywood joke and didn’t make a big comeback until 1954’s A Star Is Born, a three-hour camp spectacle about Hollywood, fame, and the perils thereof. Despite difficulties on set, Judy Garland is fantastic in it; she shines on screen, is both over the top whilst remaining relatable, her voice is raw with both joy an heartbreak, and her Oscar loss is still known as one of the biggest snubs. It was around this time that Judy’s gay following started to rise; they related to the girl who was down on her luck and ended up on the big screen in androgynous gender-bending outfits looking fantastic. They related to her persistence; she was all but a washed-up has-been, an ended up being a major leading lady. Having grown up in a system that seemed hell-bent upon demeaning and destroying her, Judy’s career was inherently telling a story of survival and persistence; her tragedies became so well known that everything she did after was inspirational; especially to fellow people whom the world seemed hell-bent upon destroying or changing or shaming. Her vulnerability and courage made her an icon to a queer audience.

“It was precisely the quality that was the cause of all the pain that was also appealing to her audience. When she sang, she was vulnerable. There was a hurt in her voice that most other singers don’t have.” –Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars in Society by Richard Dyer

What’s more, A Star is Born, and probably the rest of Judy Garland’s career, which largely became concerts and tours, is camp as hell. Defining camp has become a whole discourse in itself; Richard Dyer describes it as “a characteristically gay way of handling the values, imaged and products of the dominant culture through irony, exaggeration, trivialisation, theatricalization an an ambivalent making fun of and out of the serious and respectable.” For all of Judy’s tragedy she handled it with a camp affect; when asked whether her life was tragic, she replied “Why do people insist on seeing an aura of tragedy around me always? My life isn’t tragic at all. I laugh a lot these days. At myself, too. Lord, if I couldn’t laugh at myself I don’t think I’d be alive.”

I mean werq.

There’s a camp theatricality to all old Hollywood stars, even more so when looking back now; the over-earnestness of her serious roles are camp, exaggeration of her ordinary-ness in her early roles was camp, but Judy wasn’t just seen as camp on screen; she was it.  When asked how she could portray the intensity of one of the scenes in A Star Is Born over two long takes, she replied “Oh that’s nothing. Come over to my house any afternoon. I do it every afternoon. But I only do it once at home.” Similarly, she once said that she had “the rainbow up [her] asked,” when a fan begged her not to forget “Over the Rainbow.” (Which, to be fair, how could anyone in the world forget “Over the Rainbow?”)

In the late 50s/ early 60’s, Judy was broke and working her ass off doing concerts, TV shows and tours to keep ends meet. These shows were often intimate; she’d form an emotional connection to the audience, especially, as one reporter put it, “the men in tight trousers.” The queer community felt protective over her, and she was considerably accepting over them. When asked about her gay following, Garland replies that she performed “for people,” and she was a known patron of gay bars with fellow openly gay friends like Charles Walters and George Cukor.

After years of working her ass of singing and struggling to get more Hollywood roles, Judy Garland died June 22nd, 1969. Her funeral was held on June 27th, and in the early hours of June 28th, the Stonewall riots began, essentially starting the Gay Rights movement of the 20th Century. Some historians find it frivolous to connect Garland’s death to the riots; the riots were started by disenfranchised youth and trans people – not necessarily the same people who could afford tickets to a Judy Garland show. Others claim that her death stirred something in the Stonewall clientele that evening. That’s what people were talking about that evening at Stonewall, and during the riots, people were overheard chanting “St Judy St Judy Pray For Us.” The anger had been building up for weeks, but some argue that Judy’s funeral is what tipped it over the edge.

Judy was ordinary, yet camp. She was feminine, yet androgynous. She was tragic, yet she persevered. She had all the makings of the quintessential gay icons and may drag queens and performers let her legacy live on forever.

by Q. Image from Parade. For more by Q, see Kavanaugh Confirmation // The Sergeant at Arms Will Not Restore Order to the Gallery.

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